A Trillion Dollar Dream For Tamil Nadu — Challenges And Opportunities  

A Trillion Dollar Dream For Tamil Nadu — Challenges And Opportunities  

by N Muthuraman and I A S Balamurugan - Sunday, June 28, 2020 03:22 PM IST
A Trillion Dollar Dream For Tamil Nadu — Challenges And Opportunities  Protesters shout slogans during a protest against the ban on the Jallikattu at Marina Beach in Chennai. (ARUN SANKAR/AFP/GettyImages)
  • Tamil Nadu is arguably the best governed state in India so far.

    But that is likely to change, given the current realities.

    If the people don’t realise what’s bogging them down, they may very soon lose the plot.

It is within reach. It is in the grasps within a decade.

A trillion dollar Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the current USD 260 billion is a realisable dream.

Tamil Nadu is arguably the best governed state of the country. It is probably the only state which has successfully moved labour from agriculture to other sectors as it is the only state to register absolute decline in labour employed in agriculture in the last two census.

It is among the top states that have maximum number of engineering colleges, polytechnique institutes and medical colleges.

Its dream run from USD 1 billion of GDP in 1980s to USD 260 billion today is nothing sort of a miracle.

It marched forward right from the time of Independence. The foundation for this growth was laid by K. Kamaraj, then Chief Minister, who got large PSUs into the state and also set up industrial parks like Guindy in Chennai.

Another popular CM, M.G. Ramachandran, made two decisive policies which resulted in an unintended economic boom.

First one is the mass implementation of the midday meal scheme.

He didn’t want children to go hungry and staked his personal political capital to bring more kids to school.

He was ridiculed and scoffed at for making children ‘beggars’. But it turned out to be the single trigger for Tamil Nadu’s enhanced literacy.

The second one, his zeal to privatise technical education which had created abundant supply of seats where anyone who wanted to pursue technical education got the opportunity.

The first corporate hospital “Apollo” was set up in his time and it resulted in more healthcare entrepreneurs setting up hospitals across TN, and this also emerged as a fore-runner for successful corporate hospitals across the country.

There is no wonder that TN has the maximum number of labs testing for Covid-19, compared to any other state, and has the least mortality rates, bettering even developed countries.

There is no denying the fact that the successive chief ministers could pursue on that foundation to make TN the best governed state.

However, today, one could feel all is not well.

The death of two strong leaders (J Jayalalitha and M Karunanidhi) around the same time has left a vacuum.

A nearby industrial park “Sri City”, 60 km from Chennai, in Andhra, could get more investments than TN in the last few years.

The state is well poised in terms of human and natural resources, but there are doubts in industrial circles as to how it would play out.

As the great Tamil poet Bharathiyar said: “நல்லதோர் வீணை செய்தே - அதை நலங்கெடப் புழுதியிலெறிவருதுண்டோ?”, meaning “would you a craft a great Veena and throw it in the mud”.

The next decade could end up easily a wasted opportunity.

TN can throw it away if they don’t tackle the challenges highlighted below.

1. Drinking Problem

It may be true to our ancient Tamil culture, which was not alien to drinking. In Purananuru (a collection of 400 poems of kings, wars and public life dating back to the frst century BC), Avvayar (an aged women poet) gets a Godly Gooseberry from a king named “Athiyaman” which guarantees a long life.

He gave it to her as a tribute to her contributions to Tamil. When Athiyaman dies, Avvayar recites a poem seeing his body in the battlefield (Purananuru Poem No:235) as quoted below

சிறியகட் பெறினே, எமக்கீயும்; மன்னே!
பெரிய கட் பெறினே,
யாம் பாடத், தான்மகிழ்ந்து உண்ணும்; மன்னே!
சிறுசோற் றானும் நனிபல கலத்தன்; மன்னே!
பெருஞ்சோற்றானும் நனிபல கலத்தன்; மன்னே!


என்பொடு தடிபடு வழியெல்லாம் எமக்கீயும்; மன்னே!

One would have expected her to make at least a passing mention on that life enhancing Gooseberry.

But rather she remembers “How hospitable he was in giving all the alcohol to me if he had short supply and shared if he had more, and shared with me his meat too”. (In a lighter vein, the tradition of a quarter bottle alcohol and biryani for political rallies may have had its origin there).

However, alcohol consumption these days is widespread and it is eroding the social fabric, so much so, that TN could easily become the capital of young widows in a decade.

A well governed state cannot so heavily depend on liquor business for its resources.

All political parties have interests in liquor business and its dirty money goes into political funding.

A society of alcoholics cannot dream big. Drinking is not a moral issue but a society cannot be built on setting steep targets to make citizens drunkards.

Though one need not go to the other extreme of outright prohibition, a calibrated strategy to ‘cap, roll back and eliminate’ liquor outlets to reduce widespread availability, reducing timings, etc. can help address this issue to a large extent.

2. Monumental corruption

It is our guesstimate that government revenues could go up easily by 25 per cent if not more, by just curtailing and regularising key hotspots of corruption.

It is big money in liquor, sand mining, real estate approvals and money paid for government approvals for industries.

Based on personal anecdotal experience, we can say that the way government servants demand bribes in a tone and tenor would put even filmy villains to shame.

Corruption is a universal problem in India; but the industrial scale in TN has chased many investments.

It is all pervasive across society. A society with ambition would be felled by its own ills and corruption would kill chances of achieving the state’s true economic potential.

An ever-noisy Tamil media does not treat this as an issue any more and no investigative journalism on corruption of any worth has come out in the last few decades.

There are no quick fixes to this widespread problem; but if the policymakers appreciate the fact that this is a serious hurdle in the growth of the state, and take concerted efforts such as passing the Service Guarantee Bill, implementing e-Governance for all approvals and clearances, greater transparency in government procurement, time-bound payments for vendors to government, etc., this issue can be addressed to a great extent.

3. Fringe elements

TN always had its share of fringe elements in the form of secessionists, naxals, radical Tamil nationalists and religious fundamentalists.

The society has, by and large, shunned them away. These fringe elements were kept well under check under both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, who ruled the state for the last 20+ years.

Today, in the absence of such powerful leaders, the fringe elements are trying to alter the discourse.

There are failed film directors, criminal convicts, religious fanatics etc., who are being projected as ‘thought leaders’ and it is sad to see that they have gained traction.

The shutdown of the Sterlite Copper unit in south TN, pushing India to become a net importer of Copper, from being a net exporter earlier, is a classic example.

The current crop of politicians, with monumental moral failure, are unable or unwilling to tackle them.

Unless such fringe elements are nipped in the bud and severe legal action is pursued against them, the state runs the risk of losing several large-scale industries to its neighbours, who are extending a red-carpet welcome to these entrepreneurs.

4. Negativity sells

TN is also the land of protests. TN has been having the dubious distinction of the highest number of street protests among all the states, in recent years.

There is no denying the fact that democracy survives on dissent and protests. But the scale and frequency of protests in TN clearly indicates that there is are well-oiled professional protest groups that have taken strong roots here.

Both the national parties have been vilified by motivated groups, and vernacular journalists beyond anyone’s imagination.

The narrative of “Tamilians are being victimised” is today stronger than ever. It is a shame that such a feeling has set in in a community whose history is rich, that conquered vast lands, built monuments and above all have the Tamil Pride.

Unfortunately, today there is not a single politician who can hold the crowd on positive narration in Tamil land.

One needs to be reminded here again of the great Bharathiyar’s saying: “நொந்தது சாகும்”, meaning ‘negativity kills’. There is an urgent need to re-capture the popular narrative with more positive stories and huge successes that TN has had in recent years such as leadership of TN in renewable energy,

TN emerging as the SAAS (Software as a service) capital In the Start-up world, and TN establishing itself as the Healthcare capital of the country are notable.

5. Dying Tamil Language

When Bharathiyar said: “மெல்லத் தமிழினிச் சாகும்” (“Tamil will die slowly”) in frustration to provoke people, he would have never imagined that it would become a reality within a century.

Probably, it is common among many regional languages where people think their native language is inferior to English, but among Tamilians, it is taken to an extreme. There is a generation of young Tamils who are brainwashed to believe that Tamil is inferior to English and speaking in English is taken as the yardstick for knowledge and wisdom.

It is a generation which is neither good in Tamil nor in English.

It is a generation which knows more about river Thames than its own Cauvery.

If not addressed, the final death knell for the language is a few decades away. The death of the language would kill Tamil Pride and its native thinkers.

Instead of changing the spelling for the names of cities (as was attempted recently, and quickly rescinded), the focus of the government, policy makers and intellectuals should be to restore the pride in learning and speaking in Tamil, which will help young talent from the hinterland reach their full potential.

6. Overeaten Burp. (புளிச்ச ஏப்பம்)

This is a slang which is often used in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu for someone having a feeling that “he/she has arrived in life”.

This feeling is the new normal when it comes to work ethics among many Tamil youth. It is true that TN attracts lots of guest workers from other parts of country, not merely for the low costs alone.

It is the deterioration in availability and quality of skilled labour that drives local businesses to get guest workers.

There are enough welfare schemes “from cradle to grave” to ensure one doesn’t learn a skill, prime examples being doles of colour TV, mixie, grinder etc. and MNREGA.

A state that depends on guest workers for running its factories is supporting an employment guarantee programme. Irony just died a thousand deaths.

This problem is more acute when it comes to its entrepreneurial community.

The trendsetters of the earlier years, sadly, did not produce many new-age businesses, barring a very few.

It has meagre record in producing unicorns. To top it, there is a crowd of so-called revolutionaries, which is feeding the young with the impression that “those corporates and big businesses are victimising you”.

This negative sentiment on big businesses coming from Tamil Nadu is a recipe for disaster, and there is an urgent need to change the narrative to look at wealth creators in a more positive light.

Had Bharathiyar lived today, he would have been lynched on social media for equating wealth creators and industrialists as ‘living gods’ in his poem on Industry.

“தேட்ட மின்றி விழியெதிர் காணும் தெய்வ மாக விளங்குவிர் நீரே”

To conclude, nothing is insurmountable in front of great Tamil pride.

It has, time and again, risen from ashes with its colossal emperors and leaders.

The current political leadership across the spectrum owes to the coming generations a vibrant economic Tamil power.

An article like this on Tamil Nadu cannot end without a filmy dialogue.

It is often that I get to hear from Tamil celluloid clowns that they are capable of “swimming in Tsunami waves”.

What is guaranteed is the coming Tsunami which can sweep away the Trillion dollar dream and Tamil pride.

One has to wait and see whether this time around “we Tamils can swim against the Tsunami”.

While these challenges are the headwinds that TN is facing in pursuing its goal of a USD 1 Trillion economy, the next part of this series will focus on the key strengths that are unique to TN, that will propel its growth in the next decade.

N Muthuraman is the co-founder of RiverBridge, a boutique investment banking firm. I A S Balamurugan, a veteran banker, is the co-founder of an AIF, Anicut Capital LLP.

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